- Children’s empathy isn’t fully developed, so meanness is common, online and off.
- Sensible limits and monitoring can help your child learn to be safe online.
- Having a specific plan for handling cyberbullying can help your child feel more confident and competent online.
There’s a special kind of awfulness when meanness happens online. Because it’s so public—and often anonymous—cyberbullying leaves kids feeling vulnerable and exposed. It can spread rapidly, and it follows kids home, even into their bedrooms.
The variety of ways that kids can be nasty to each other online boggles the imagination: TikToks making fun of someone, kicking someone out of a group chat, harsh comments about someone’s post, screenshots of supposedly private conversations, or unflattering photos posted publicly without permission—even posts that seem OK on the surface, such as a smiling photo with a comment saying, “Having fun with my BFFs,” could be an intentional dig at someone who was excluded from the get-together.
Kids experiment with social power, and their empathy isn’t fully developed, so, unfortunately, cruelty is common both online and in person.
Probably every kid has made or will make mistakes by doing or saying something less-than-kind online. Often this is part of a poorly handled conflict. Even we adults sometimes have trouble keeping it civil and constructive when we’re upset. But most of us have figured out that broadcasting our upset isn’t helpful!
When a group of kids is targeting one kid, or when a more socially powerful kid picks on a less powerful kid, especially if it happens repeatedly, it’s not just meanness; it’s bullying. That power difference is what makes it difficult or impossible for the targeted kid to handle the situation on their own.
Here are some ideas that could help your child avoid or deal with online meanness and cyberbullying:
1. Spell out what is and isn’t OK online.
Staying safe and kind online is a learned skill. Specific guidelines make it easier for your child to make kind and wise choices online. This may make them less of a target for online meanness. For instance:
- It’s not OK to forward someone else’s message or give out someone else’s contact info. That’s their choice.
- It’s not OK to pretend online to be someone you’re not. That’s not funny; it’s deceitful.
- It’s not OK to say mean things about someone online. Those comments live forever and spread rapidly.
- Only share things about yourself online that you wouldn’t mind being read in your school’s morning announcements. Nothing is private online.
- If you haven’t met them in person, don’t talk to them online. They may not be who you think they are.
2. Set sensible limits, and monitor as needed.
Delaying letting your child have social media can minimize problems because it gives your child and their peers a chance to mature. Kids are likely to encounter fewer problems with social media if they’re past the worst of the middle-school herd mentality. Rates of cyberbullying among kids increase after fifth grade and reach a peak during eighth grade (Hinduja & Patchin, 2008).
If your child is young enough to have a bedtime, your child’s devices also need a bedtime. Your child may be afraid of missing something, but nothing good happens with middle-of-the-night communication!
Especially when your child is first learning to use texting or social media, it’s a good idea to do at least spot-checks on what they’re posting. Tell your child you’ll check. Just knowing you might see their posts can help kids make better decisions about what to put online.
Despite what your child might say, most parents do check on their kids’ digital activity. According to a 2016 Pew report, 61 percent of parents have checked which websites their teen visited, 60 percent have checked their teen’s social media profile, and 48 percent have looked through their teen’s phone calls or messages.
Younger and more impulsive kids need closer supervision. If your child tends to have a lot of conflicts with peers in person, chances are that will continue or increase online.
3. Help your child think things through.
Stay calm and ask more than tell so your child can learn to think things through even when you’re not around to check. If you “catch” your child in a mistake, use it as a teachable moment rather than a “Gotcha!”
You could ask questions about their situation or hypothetical ones. For example:
- What would you do in that situation?
- Why do you think it’s not a good idea to do X?
- Why do you think some kids do that?
- How do you think she felt when she saw that?
- What can you do to show him you’re sorry?
- What do you want to do from now on?
4. Emphasize that it’s very hard to resolve a conflict online.
When kids are heated, it’s tempting to dash off a mean text. But texts are a stripped-down form of communication: no facial expression, no tone of voice, no body language. That means misunderstandings are not just possible but likely when emotions are running high.
If a conflict comes up, urge your child to speak with the friend in person rather than online (after tempers have cooled) to prevent or clarify misunderstandings.
5. Discuss a plan for if your child is the target of online meanness or cyberbullying.
Having a plan can help your child feel more confident and competent online.
- Don’t respond! If someone is trying to be mean, giving them a hurt or angry response could be entertaining for them. It could also escalate things.
- Take a screenshot. This records the unkind comments and gives your child the option of reporting it at some later point.
- Block the sender, if possible. This may not stop cyberbullying on other sites, but it stops direct communication.
- Tell an adult.
Kids often don’t report upsetting things that happen online because they don’t want their grown-ups to take away their devices. Promise your child that you won’t flip out if they come to you with an upsetting situation. You’ll figure out what to do next together. This might involve coming up with ways to de-escalate the situation, finding support for your child, reporting the incident to the school (or police), or avoiding the person doing the cyberbullying.
Anderson, M. (2016). Parents, teens and digital monitoring. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2016/01/07/parents-teens-and-digit…
Hinduja, S., & Patchin, J. W. (2008). Cyberbullying: An exploratory analysis of factors related to offending and victimization. Deviant behavior, 29(2), 129-156.